14/09/1988 Belfast Republic of Ireland 0-0
Alan McKnight, Mal Donaghy (Anton Rogan), Nigel Worthington, Alan McDonald, John McClelland, Danny Wilson, Steve Penney, Michael O’Neill, Colin Clarke, Jimmy Quinn, Kingsley Black
Security concerns dominated the lead up to the opening World Cup match in Windsor Park, Belfast. Tickets for visiting fans from the Republic were restricted to 2,000 out of the 25,000 capacity. All bars in the vicinity of the ground were closed from 3.30 and flags and banners strictly prohibited.
Ireland had a number of injury concerns for the game. Packie Bonner was missing due to back injury that had hampered him since before Euro 88 so Gerry Peyton of Bournemouth took his place. Frank Stapleton, who was without a club following his departure from Ajax, was left out with Kevin Moran, now of Sporting Gijon in Spain, taking the captain’s armband. Jack Charlton had also decided that Tony Galvin, at 32, was now too old for international football and handed his place to Everton’s Kevin Sheedy. Paul McGrath, who seemed destined to move to Tottenham Hotspur at this time, was again deployed in midfield.
The match passed without much incident. Jack Charlton, while inspecting the pitch before the start of the match … decided to go over to the Northern fans to ask for a light for his cigar.
The game itself was as intense as expected. The keypoint of the game occurred after just three minutes. Alan McDonald (of QPR) was booked for a tackle on Kevin Sheedy. From the resultant free-kick, Ronnie Whelan’s shot rebounded off the wall for Chris Hughton to cross the ball to the far post where Tony Cascarino planted a header off the base of the post. The ball skidded along the goal-line before being collected by Alan McKnight in the Northern goal. Cascarino believed he had scored but the referee waved play on. The Republic were rampant in this spell and Cascarino again went close to connecting with a Whelan effort and John Aldridge headed over from close range. Billy Bingham’s men had only one chance of note throughout the 90 minutes when Danny Wilson’s floated free-kick was headed goalwards by Colin Clarke that forced a superb full-stretch save by Gerry Peyton. Ray Houghton forced McKnight into another good save after 51 minutes when the West Ham keeper got down quickly to block his shot. The rebound went straight back to Houghtan who rounded the stranded keeper only to see his second effort cleared off the line by current Shamrock Rovers manager Micheal O’Neill. The game finished 0-0 with the feeling that Ireland had wasted a great opportunity to get one over their neighbours.
Northern Ireland: McKnight, Donaghy, Worthington, McClelland, McDonald, Wilson, Penney, Quinn, Clarke, O’Neill, Black. Sub: Rogan for Donaghy.
Ireland: Peyton, Morris, Hughton, Moran, McCarthy, McGrath, Whelan, Houghtan, Sheedy, Aldridge, Cascarino.
Michael O’Neill sat his A-Level Maths exam the day before the match at Queens University, as part of the Open University. He had been due to sit the exam in May of the same year but it fell on the same day of a match against Malta so he had to miss it.